The growing disconnect between American Jews and mainstream Jewish organizations

The director of the local office of a mainstream Jewish organization introduces me, tentatively, warning her minions that I may make points that some might find offensive. “While you may not agree with David, it’s important that we hear him out,” she says. She knows I’m going to raise controversial topics, like whether the Jewish community should support Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) programs, not long ago a third rail in politely liberal Jewish circles. 

Then a funny thing happens during the Q&A. We go around the table and almost everyone agrees with my concerns about how an oppressor-oppressed ideology foments antisemitism. Several are especially critical of DEI.  

Finally, we get to Max, a prominent partner in a law firm known for his progressive politics, and everyone takes a deep breath. 

“I don’t know who I am anymore or where I fit in,” Max says. “I’m shocked at how many of my fellow progressives reacted after Oct. 7. Maybe I’ve been asleep at the wheel.”

I’ve heard such sentiment over and over in the past six months. Recently, I spoke to a group of Jewish teachers in a very blue school district where DEI and other “anti-racism” pedagogies have made deep inroads. I was unsure if these teachers would be receptive to my warnings of an ascending ideology in the schools but was astonished when several volunteered their own horror stories of coercive DEI trainings and pernicious lesson plans. There was no hint of antagonism toward me or my message. 

I’ve also recently witnessed the rising alarm among Jewish parents of worsening ideological conditions and their shock at the appearance of anti-Israel propaganda in their kids’ K-12 schools. In the past several months, numerous WhatsApp groups for worried Jewish parents have popped up across the country, where parents share the latest outrage coming out of their local schools, compare notes and actively plan interventions.  

Unfortunately, I’ve observed much less internal reflection or anything approaching a pivot on the part of mainstream Jewish organizations, which seem stuck in their own histories and political compacts. Rabbi David Ingber, the founding rabbi of Romemu, recently waxed poignantly about his sense that “liberal Jewish groups have not really done the inner work of understanding how they and we unwittingly and with the best of intentions countenance the decentering of Jewish concerns,” allowing the “language of oppressor and oppressed… into the discourse that then led to this kind of combustible reality on Oct. 8.” 

Six months after Oct. 7, I have an inkling, to borrow the words of New York Times columnist Bret Stephens, of “the Oct. 8 Jew,” but little sense of the Oct. 8 Jewish organization

Stephens argues that “on Oct. 8, Jews woke up to discover who our friends are not.” American Jewish organizations, undoubtedly rattled by the hostility coming from the far left, have yet to fully reassess their relationships. What’s holding them up? 

A few weeks ago, I presented at a Jewish federation meeting in a Midwest city. Once again, nearly everyone in the room agreed that we face a serious ideological problem on the left that runs much deeper than outward expressions of antisemitism. After the meeting, I spoke with a woman who had spent years as chair of her local Jewish community relations council, conducting outreach to progressive groups. 

“I hear what you are saying about identifying new partners for our intergroup work, but we should not write off our traditional civil rights partners,” she said emphatically. 

“I don’t oppose engaging traditional partners, as long as we don’t suppress our own views on DEI or other concerns about an ideology run amok,” I responded.  “And if they can’t still be our friends then maybe they aren’t the right friends.”

“Haven’t we always been willing to hold back on some of our concerns to be in relationship with others?” she asked. 

It dawned on me after the discussion that this communal leader was talking herself out of making any change in approach to Jewish outreach and advocacy. It further struck me that mainstream Jewish communal organizations are doing precisely the same: paying lip service to a shift in priorities but then, faced with tough trade-offs, reverting to business as usual. They can’t bear giving anything up, alienating any ally or taking any risks to their current standing.     

Jewish organizations are reluctant to confront radical trends on the left because the progressive activists they’ve long allied themselves with leave little room for differences of opinion. Jewish groups know that if they critique a coercive DEI program or ethnic studies curriculum they’ll jeopardize an already tenuous relationship. In an interview with CNN, Cornell William Brooks, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School and the former president of the NAACP, said: “We start with the conversation about how to protect Jewish students and end up in a conversation about an assault on programs that benefit Black and brown people… it’s really about an attack on higher education, anti-DEI.” In an article in the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, one Jewish leader reported similar sentiment from Black allies who question whether Jews are embracing a right-wing political agenda in the name of fighting antisemitism. Jewish leaders fear that any criticism of radical left-wing ideology will generate a rift with established civil rights figures and organizations, relationships they consider central to the Jewish story. So they hold back.

As a student and practitioner of organizational change, I’m all too familiar with the deeply entrenched inertia that inhibits major shifts in direction. Of course, it’s much easier for a person to privately rethink his or her worldview than it is for an entire institution to alter its fundamental course. The latter involves multiple stakeholders with varied perspectives. Faced with the need to change, people and groups often find excuses to stay put. Lisa Lahey, one of two authors of the seminal Immunity to Change, says that “[m]indset transformation requires overcoming blind spots, unearthing our competing commitments, and freeing ourselves of limiting assumptions.” 

Jewish organizations maintain a competing commitment to remain aligned with traditional allies and to maintain their standing in what Israeli writer Einat Wilf calls “the community of the good.” They’re afraid to break free and journey into the unknown. But they should know by now that an alliance that denies the rape of Israeli women, portrays the entire Western world as hopelessly racist and deems critical thinking and free expression a function of white supremacy, is a “community of the not good enough” for us.    

Indeed, mainstream Jewish organizations will increasingly find themselves at odds with Jews whose kids and grandkids face indoctrination in high school and belligerent protests on campus. Newly minted parent activists will not be satisfied with the typical accommodationist posture, behind-the-scenes dialogue and conciliatory rhetoric. They could not care less about maintaining old alliances and are more than open to new ones. They want hard-hitting action that protects their kids. Unless American Jewish groups rise to the occasion, it won’t be long until a disconnect turns into a gulf. 

David Bernstein is the founder of the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values (JILV).